I eat out so often that I occasionally suffer from palate fatigue. I know, I know -- it's a first-world problem. But while I love eating in new restaurants, I sometimes detect a certain sameness on the menus around town. Food trends can dominate -- kale alongside every protein, balsamic drizzled on every plate and bacon on and in everything. Occasionally, I feel… a little… over it. (Except for that last thing. I, for one, welcome our bacon overlords.)
Which is why I'm so excited to write about Pangea, a new restaurant in downtown Anchorage that is the brainchild of established restaurateurs Robert Lewis (formerly of Maxine's) and Mike Dodge (formerly of Hott Stixx). This is a restaurant that seems to defy description and to buck trends. Now don't get me wrong. I understand that "fusion" cuisine is, in fact, trendy. But the menu and food here are so eclectic and creative that the food isn't a servant to the trends. In fact, the food might be the originator of some new ones.
I went first for a mid-week lunch with my younger daughter. The lunch menu is diverse -- shawarma, falafel, Italian subs, muffalettas -- but decidedly more traditional than the dinner menu.
We began with the Indian salad ($11). And it's absolutely lovely to look at and to eat. The many different greens -- zucchini, pumpkin seeds, frisee and what I think were supposed to be peas but what I suspect were edamame -- were set off by a beautiful, mustardy-yellow dressing. This is a robust salad and big enough to share. The grilled zucchini and cauliflower were tender and smoky, perfectly offset the citrusy, acidic pop of the "madras Caesar," a bright dressing rich with cumin. A crisp little papadam added texture and substance to this satisfying salad. It was one of the best salads I've had in Anchorage.
My daughter (10 years old and a cautious eater) went basic with a "drive-in burger" ($13) despite my best efforts to describe a muffaletta, a banh mi and the concept of a Korean taco. This burger is as American as the Pangea menu gets -- a brioche bun, lettuce, onions, pickles, cheese and "special sauce." It is a very good execution of the classic. I'm always so glad when a burger doesn't rely completely on the "fixings" to distinguish itself. There are a lot of bland, sad patties out there hiding, embarrassed, under a heap of shredded lettuce and a plank of bacon. This was not one of those. There was a lot of flavor in the patty itself (described on the menu as ground chuck and brisket). My daughter was well pleased and regarded my intermittent bites ("Honey, I'm just doing my job") with the contempt that they deserved.
I ordered the duck schnitzel Reuben ($14) because I was intrigued by the unusual combination. I remained intrigued but, somehow, not entirely convinced. First, the duck, by nature of being "schnitzeled" was a bit tough and chewy, though it imparted a nice, earthy flavor to the sandwich. Secondly, I was looking forward to the promised caramelized pear mustard and Gruyere, but both flavors were lost in the strong taste of the "victory cabbage" (that's sauerkraut to those not into World War I history, so-called because of anti-German sentiment. Sorry, I love this kind of trivia). Don't get me wrong -- this was excellent kraut. It was subtle and flavorful and not overly acidic, but there was too much of it on the sandwich. Lastly, though I enjoyed eating it (after taking it apart and re-building it with less kraut), it left me thinking of Christmas. These were winter flavors, and the sandwich was a bit heavy for a bright summer day. Which begs the question: Can a sandwich be the victim of global warming? (Not a real question. Please don't write.) I'm not sure I'd order it again -- at least not until October.
I returned the following week for dinner with my friend Heather. The restaurant was quiet for a Friday evening. We were so intrigued by the "small plates" menu that we selected four of them to start our meal. First, we opted for the smashed fingerling potatoes (fried in duck-fat -- yes, please. $12) with ham and raclette cheese. This is a straightforward and satisfying dish but was served raclette-style -- baby potatoes in a bowl under a blanket of cheese and ham -- which made it a bit cumbersome to share. In other words? Next time, I'm not sharing.
Next, we sampled the king mushrooms with sesame cream and fermented garlic ($13). The plate was a work of art with the mushrooms as muse. They were ephemeral yet earthy, and we loved the bold stripe of fermented garlic that painted the plate. This condiment was assertive, savory and addictive. We were slightly less impressed with the sesame cream which, frankly, tasted like whipped butter. With all due love for butter -- it wasn't as exciting as promised.
The oxtail bao ($11), a fat-skinned dumpling stuffed with oxtail in chili oil and a red miso sauce, felt both comforting and daring. The rice flour dough was dense and chewy and reminded me of the dumplings I used to get from Chinese restaurants in New York -- doughy, starchy and satisfying. And the combination of spicy oil and savory miso was the perfect dipping sauce.
The best of the appetizers, however, was the quail ($15). This dish was enchantingly presented. It was split and stuffed in a playful interpretation of a Scotch egg -- a boiled quail egg wrapped in chorizo. It's a charming inside joke on a plate. The quail was crispy and flavorful, the chorizo was spicy and confident and the egg was a creamy little jewel at the very center. This dish made me smile while I was eating it and is making me smile now in recollection.
After so many "small" plates, we decided we only had room for one entree and decided to share the goat tagine ($25). It is one of the best dishes I've eaten in ages. Served on a bed of perfectly cooked couscous, the goat was tender, savory and highly seasoned. The onions were buttery and sweet. A fried quail egg on top lent a rich creaminess to the dish. This was a humble, rustic dish that was perfectly executed. I was completely smitten.
Service on both occasions was pleasant and efficient -- I was particularly taken with the fact that, during lunch, my daughter's strawberry lemonade was replaced with a fresh one at no charge (a $4 beverage). The room is inviting and eclectic with cozy booths, industrial-chic fixtures and bold, colorful art against pumpkin-colored walls.
While not every dish was flawless (I'd like to see the schnitzel sandwich redesigned and new plating on the potato raclette), the highs were so high -- the irresistible goat, the delicious and playful quail, the bright and beautiful Indian salad -- that I'm already planning my next visit. I might wait until I can order an assertive red wine to go with … let's see … the tempura pork belly? The bean stew with blood sausage? The veal cheeks? It's going to be tricky. Because I'm going to have to save room for the goat.
Pangea Restaurant and Lounge
Hours: Lunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
Location: 508 West Sixth Ave.
Contact: 907-222-3949 or pangearestaurantandlounge.com